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The Rise of Naturalism and Its Problematic Role in Science and Culture Bruce L. Gordon
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost And found and lost again and again: and now under conditions That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. —T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets (East Coker)
It is worthwhile reflecting on how philosophical naturalism rose to its contemporary place of hegemony not just in the sciences, but in the academy in general. It was not always so. The institution of the university was an invention of medieval Christianity and modern science itself was birthed out of a Judeo-Christian worldview, a truth that has been lost in the current landscape of whiggish tales about the backwardness of the Middle Ages and the "warfare" between science and religion that supposedly began with the Enlightenment. A corrective is in order. I propose, therefore, to begin with a concise reflection on the very possibility of rational explanation in the context of naturalism, arguing that it is a woefully deficient context for the scientific enterprise both metaphysically and epistemologically. I will then develop a historico-philosophical etiology of the rise of naturalism and correct a variety of egregious historical misconceptions, all by way of a general argument that the current ontological and methodological foundations for the pursuit of scientific truth are misconceived, counterproductive, and in dire need of reconstitution on transcendent grounds.
1. Rational Explanations within and without Naturalism
Among those holding to the universality of rational explanations, some would maintain that while it may be a logical possibility that rational but nonnatural explanations exist, as a matter of fact, there are no examples of such. Natural explanation holds sway not only over the sciences, but over everything else as well. This is the viewpoint affirmed by philosophical naturalism. In its reductive form—which insists that everything must ultimately be explained at the level of physics—it devolves into scientism, the belief that the heuristic methodology of the physical sciences is applicable in all fields of inquiry and all real knowledge is the result of such investigations. Aside from its self-referential incoherence, scientism establishes a hermetic boundary between facts and values that strips all values of their factuality and all facts of any objective noninstrumental valuation. The end result is moral nihilism and the instrumentalization of rationality to subjective ends incapable of objective evaluation in terms of their intrinsic merit.
Disenchanted with reductionism, nonreductive naturalists adhere to the universal scope and rationality of natural explanations, while asserting that consciousness and rationality are mental properties that supervene on and emerge from physical circumstances to which they are nonetheless irreducible. This attempt to combine a materialist monism about entities with a pluralism of supervenient or emergent properties—accounting for consciousness, intentionality, rationality, normativity, and a variety of other things that pose prima facie difficulties for naturalism—is indicative of the highly malleable character of naturalist doctrine. This native elusivity, combined with strategies of retrenchment, is designed to insulate the fundamental thesis of naturalism—the causal closure of the material realm—from disconfirming evidence. The literature on supervenience and emergence offering variations of this sleight of hand is voluminous and we cannot survey it here, but such a survey is unnecessary since we can more easily provide two principled arguments for the falsity of both reductive and nonreductive naturalism (anomalous monism).
First of all, quite apart from the research difficulties engendered by multiple neurophysiological realizability of function, there is no way that conscious apprehension of meaning (semantics) could be generated from neurochemical syntax. Consider that the semantic content of a graphical representation in natural language is transcendently imposed upon it by an intelligent assignment of meaning to the symbols within the structure of attendant grammatical rules. Brain electrochemistry can be no different. It consists in a molecular arrangement of neurons and synaptic traffic that bears no meaning in itself, but rather requires a transcendent meaning correlate that is not intrinsic to the brain as a biological system but rather the property of a consciousness that is distinct from it. John Searle's "Chinese Room Argument" thus serves not just as an illustration of the falsity of functionalism and an explanation of why computers will never have conscious experiences; with all due respect to Searle's claims on behalf of biological naturalism, it also serves as an illustration of the falsity of nonreductive materialist monism and an explanation of why personal consciousness, while correlated with proper brain function, is ontologically and operationally distinct from it. So by all means, let us establish the neurophysiological correlates of thought insofar as we can, but not be so naïve as to think such an achievement would establish materialist monism; on the contrary, an immaterial consciousness must exist if our beliefs have semantic content, which they undeniably do. The rejection of an ontological distinction between matter and mind requires the self-refuting belief that there are no such things as beliefs. It leaves us with an eliminative materialism that renders consciousness an illusion and therefore precludes the very possibility of rationality.
A parallel argument can be given that belief in naturalism, whether reductive or nonreductive, is epistemically self-defeating. Various forms of this argument have been offered by C. S. Lewis, Richard Taylor, and Alvin Plantinga. Since the most recent version of Plantinga's sophisticated evolutionary argument against naturalism is available to the reader in this collection, I distill here the essence of the Lewis-Taylor-Plantinga insight.
The prospect of human knowledge depends upon the veridicality of our perceptions and the validity of our reasoning processes. If the certainty resulting from cognitive perception and valid inference provides a genuine grasp of how reality must be independent of our minds, then knowledge is possible, but if the certainty so obtained is a mere feeling and not a genuinely reliable insight into reality, then we do not have knowledge. Now, if naturalism is true, human beings came about as the result of undirected processes of evolution that had no goal in mind. In such case, our cognitive faculties are the end result of mindless causes and historical accidents that take no account of truth or logic, just the exigencies of survival. Under such conditions, any complex of beliefs and desires that conduces to survival would suffice. What we believe to be true under such conditions is therefore an accidental historical byproduct of purely natural events that bear no intrinsic relation to the actual truth of the beliefs we hold; it is an expression of how our brains just happen to work. That our beliefs should actually be true under such conditions seems quite unlikely; at the very least, whether our beliefs are true or false cannot be ascertained. If naturalism is true, therefore, our reasoning processes are so discredited that they cannot support the truth of any of the beliefs we happen to hold, especially those rather distant from immediate experience, such as the belief in naturalism itself. Belief in naturalism is therefore epistemically self-defeating, and since there is for the naturalist no remedy to this situation, it is irrational to be a philosophical naturalist because it destroys the possibility of rationality altogether.
This leaves us to philosophical naturalists who are most appropriately categorized as "pragmatists." While eschewing anything beyond the natural realm, they deny the universality of rational explanation. In their view, all explanations are radically contextual, and nothing would license the assumption that all contexts—even scientific ones—are mutually reconcilable. This stance, which represents a kind of irrationalism, is ironically the most consistent realization of the metaphysical and epistemological implications of philosophical naturalism. Adoption of the pragmatic stance ultimately leads to the fragmentation and instrumentalization of all rationality, scientific rationality included. Whatever science is, under the rubric of pragmatic naturalism, it is not the rational search for a unified truth about the natural world. It is merely one instrumentality among many in a relativistic world of personal and societal agendas that have no objective standard in respect of their merit. Without such a universal standard, "truth" has no purchase point that would grant it objective ascendancy, "knowledge" becomes mere power in the service of appetite, and everything gets politicized. While many academic pragmatists give no personal evidence of an oppressive and egregious agenda—indeed, many are so concerned about prejudice that, as Richard Weaver once observed, they are at war with simple predication—nonetheless, there is nothing intrinsic to this metaphysic, or rather lack of metaphysic, which would restrain the pragmatist from atrocities or exhort him to defend against them. Again, nihilism reigns and the voice of relativized "reason" dissolves into static, full of sibilant sound, signifying nothing. Rationalistic or irrationalistic, reductive or nonreductive, it is therefore clear that through its detranscendentalization of both nature and reason, philosophical naturalism destroys any rational basis for science, and ultimately contributes to the destabilization and fragmentation of civil society.
So much for naturalistic accounts of rationality; but there are also those, among whom I include myself, who would maintain that while rational explanation has a legitimate claim to universality, natural explanation does not. Indeed, they would assert that natural explanations are only possible because they are grounded in an intelligent order that is transcendently imposed upon the natural realm—without belief in the existence of such an order, scientific practice would seem little better than reading patterns into tea leaves or chicken entrails. The fact that scientific activity is less arbitrary and more useful than such fabrications may be taken as evidence for the existence of just such a transcendently imposed order; indeed, this presupposition is the transcendental ground of the very possibility of science as a rational, truth-conducive enterprise. Within this rubric, natural explanations may be either adequate or inadequate to their intended explanandum, and it becomes possible that rigorous analysis may show certain features of the universe and of biological systems to be best explained as the result of intelligent causes that transcend nature. Furthermore, in respect of human rationality itself, like also begets like, and the reason that our cognitive faculties are capable of perceiving truth and reasoning correctly is that they too—when functioning properly in their intended environment—operate as intelligently designed systems that have the formation of true beliefs as their purpose. Only under such conditions does our unspoken faith in human reason make sense. It could not be otherwise, for as we have just seen, the embrace of naturalism utterly destroys the possibility of any knowledge or rationality.
2. Naturalism Rising: Historical Causes and Societal Consequences
Given the pathological character of naturalism, it is worth examining how it gained hegemony in the academy at large and the sciences in particular, and it is important to correct a few myths about the origins of modern science and the alleged "warfare" between science and religion.
In his monumental tome A Secular Age, Charles Taylor attempts to trace the multiple genealogies and etiologies of modern secularism in an effort to understand how a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God became one in which such belief is relativized and privatized among the masses, and discouraged as "anti-intellectual" by the cultural elite. In doing so, he distinguishes three senses of "secular" (but is particularly concerned with the last). These are: (1) the removal of God from public spaces through the sociocultural and political privatization of religion; (2) the decline of private belief in God and regular participation in associated religious practices; and (3) a change in the societal conditions of belief, whereby belief in God is relativized as merely one option among many and rendered more difficult to embrace. The story that Taylor tells is rich, subtle, and complex, not to mention profound and unsettling in its implications. Broadly speaking, there are two factors of special relevance to this massive restructuring of the conditions of belief. The first relates to what Taylor calls the "cosmic imaginary," and the second to what he calls the "social imaginary." Profound changes have taken place in the way that Western cultural elites unreflectively envisage the universe and our place within it. We have moved from an ordered and personal cosmos in which humanity has a special purpose and place to an impersonal universe with no special place for humanity and no purposes beyond those we imagine for ourselves. There has also been a profound change in the way that the modern and postmodern West conceives of its social life and perceives its identity in relationship to other cultures and civilizations. I set aside this second factor so that I might focus on the first, which is more central to our concerns.
As we shall see, in much the same manner that Judeo-Christian belief once gave Western civilization its conscience and moral structure, its sense of duty and responsibility, its love of freedom within a respect for the rule of law, its model of self-sacrifice in response to need or in confrontation with evil, its basic principles of decency and its self-confident backbone in world affairs, so too Judeo-Christian theistic belief laid the historical foundations for Western science and technological success. That this should be so is hardly surprising, for as we have seen, belief in an intelligently ordered cosmos is the transcendental ground for the very possibility of science as a rational and truth-conducive enterprise. The central irony is that having used this ladder to scale the heights, many contemporary scientists are now bent on discarding it in a naïve, Wittgensteinian fashion. What they fail to recognize is that apart from such a ladder, the whole edifice of modern science and human accomplishment becomes an inaccessible city in the clouds. This does not mean these scientists will cease to walk its streets, of course—merely that they will do so illegitimately, acknowledging neither the ladder they have used nor the borrowed theistic capital that paid for their climb and built the city itself. While it is quite reasonable to pursue scientific research without explicit reference to the transcendent framework in which such an endeavor makes sense, nevertheless, under the aegis of unbelief and the denial of an intelligently ordered reality, scientific practice becomes somewhat of a performative contradiction, and its utility a deep mystery.
Excerpted from The Nature of Nature by Bruce L. Gordon, William A. Dembski. Copyright © 2009 J. Budziszewski. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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Excellent book through and through. A must read for anyone who is interested in science or so-called pseudo-science of intelligent design. A collection of well-written essays on different perspectives of existence. A heavy, thick book packed full of brilliant information. Definitely worth the money.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.